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Bass Times: 'Old-Fashioned California Water Grab'

The California Delta has become a pawn in the political battle to direct more water to agriculture. Gerald Crawford

DES MOINES, SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The striped bass is now in the cross hairs of a major natural resource conflict on the West Coast, and a major largemouth bass fishery could be the next target as agricultural interests continue to pressure the California State Assembly to approve unsustainable water diversions from the Sacramento Delta.

A three-year drought and a statewide drought emergency became the catalysts for Assemblywoman Jean Fuller to introduce legislation to remove gamefish status for striped bass, a removal that would allow for the unlimited and indiscriminate harvest of striped bass. And according to Fuller and her constituents, there would be additional benefits to this political move.

Among them would be a reduction in predation on the state's threatened and/or endangered smelt and salmon. And once those species started to recover, she explained, water now retained in the Sacramento Delta for their well-being could be pumped out.

Critics and conservation groups counter that Fuller's legislation is a classic "red herring," yet another "water grab" by powerful lobbying interests.

"Science shows that the most critical factor in the decline of the delta's productivity and its fisheries is water export," said John Buettler, conservation director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

"But instead of solving that problem, these pillars of industry have put a full court press on destroying fisheries that get in their way," he continued.

"They are attacking sportfishing in the state because it stands in the way of their power play to eliminate anything they believe will stop them from getting water out of the delta. They don't care about the science or about the collapse of all the fisheries dependent on the estuary over the past years. And they don't give a damn about our state's sportfishing industry that generates some $4 billion a year to the state's economy."

Next, he added, they will take aim at "the delta's black bass fishery, the smallmouth, American shad, crappie and any other fish that have a 'non-native' status because, like striped bass, they were introduced."

Chris Horton, BASS' national conservation director, echoes that same fear.

"You're going to see more and more of an effort to redirect the real issue … in an attempt to keep water flowing to subsidized agriculture and those huge population centers of thirsty people in the south," he said.

Crops need to be watered and people must have water to drink, Horton added, but California continues to mismanage and waste its limited supply of water.

"Eventually, the water issue will have to be addressed because it's the real problem. The question is whether we allow them to destroy sportfisheries before they come to that realization."

This attempt to "blame it on the fish" is occurring wherever the Endangered Species Act constrains an exploitation of a resource, according to Jim Martin, director of the Berkley Conservation Institute.

"Stripers have been there for a hundred years, but now concerns about them correlate with pumping out the water and population growth," Martin told BASS Times.

"We're living in a society where exponential growth is the 11th commandment on the tablet."

In California, that's easily demonstrated by the fact that federal and state water managers exported 4 million acre-feet of water annually from the delta during the 1990s. During that decade and in the recent drought years, they've increased the outflow to 6 million acre-feet a year.

"They irresponsibly sucked reservoirs down. They nearly killed the delta. They stopped only when a federal judge called a halt [to protect endangered species]," said Michael Fitzgerald, a columnist for the Stockton Record newspaper.

Over the past 80 years, the delta's annual water supply has averaged about 29 million acre-feet. However, resource managers wrote water contracts promising 130 million acre-feet.

"Other contracts bring total export contracts to an insane 245 million acre-feet, an ocean of paper water promised to people who gauged their farms, businesses or urban water consumption accordingly," added Fitzgerald.

A series of governors from Southern California, misguided regulators and politicians "caving to constituents" abetted this delusion, he said.

"So the solution to the ginned-up drought really amounts to an old-fashioned California water grab based on the failure to face nature's limits."

Delta's salmon fishery in dire straits

Whether the striped bass will fall victim to drought, abuse of the delta and diversionary tactics associated with those issues remains to be seen. But one casualty already exists — Chinook salmon.

For the second year in a row, the commercial salmon fishing season has been canceled in California, as well as scaled back in neighboring Oregon. The restrictions will be "devastating" economically to coastal communities, said the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which made the decision.

Only 66,200 king salmon returned last fall to the Sacramento River system, which once welcomed millions. About 122,000 are estimated to return this year, well short of the 180,000 need to sustain the health of the fishery.

"While the ocean conditions are out of our control, it is clear we need to do more to restore the delta," said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Pumping out nearly half of the delta's natural freshwater inflow for the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project has contributed to the decline of both salmon and smelt, added John Beuttler of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

"Gov. Schwarzenegger and other state elected officials are pointing to California's growth and its burgeoning population of 39 million as justification for the increased pumping," said Jim Martin of the Berkley Conservation Institute. "But the truth is that 85 percent of the exported water headed south is for agriculture, much of it for subsidized cotton production.

"The 'thirsty people' argument is a smokescreen to cover more water management driven by policies of the past, rather than a vision for water conservation and prioritization for the future," continued Martin.

"What are they going to do in 2100, when California has 80 million citizens and the climate of Baja California? This is just the front edge of a much greater resist in the future for the West."

End of civilization as we know it?

The need for water withdrawals from the California Delta was a hotly debated topic in Congress, as well as the California State Assembly, as farmers were forced to idle more than 300,000 acres of land recently, leading to a loss of about 37,000 jobs.
Speaking before the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes said that unemployment in his district is nearly 20 percent and nearing 50 percent in some small agricultural communities.

"We're not asking for a billion-dollar bailout," he said.

"We aren't even asking for one single dollar. All we need is for this committee to move emergency legislation which would allow the delta pumps to return to historic export levels. Failure to act and it's over. You will witness the collapse of modern civilization in the San Joaquin Valley."

But Rep. George Miller accused some of his colleagues of "cherry picking history" and ignoring the fact that water has been pumped out of the delta at rates that exceeded what was sustainable.

Back in California, meanwhile, more than 20 state agencies have imposed some form of mandatory water restrictions. This followed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's declaration of a drought emergency in February and a request for individuals to reduce their water use by 20 percent.

As of April, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides about 30 percent of the state's water supply, stood at 81 percent of normal, while runoff (the amount of melting snow that flows into rivers and reservoirs) was projected at just 79 percent. Officials estimated that snowpack would have to be at 120 percent of normal or more to replenish reservoirs, some of which are at just 50 percent of capacity.

As a consequence, farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were told to expect no federal irrigation water in 2009. And in the fertile Central Valley, they can expect only 20 percent of normal from the state system.

Hearing such bad news, almond growers chopped down trees to sell firewood and annual crops such as lettuce and tomatoes went unplanted, according to Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition.

"Farmers by nature are resilient," he said. "They do everything they can to survive until the next year. But right now what they're doing to survive is pretty drastic."

Hard times for the farmers almost certainly will translate into higher prices at the grocery store for the rest of us. California agriculture produces more than half of the nation's vegetables, fruits and nuts. But it consumes roughly 80 percent of the state's water in the process.

For more information...

To help California residents conserve water at home and at work, a new public relations campaign called "Save Our Water" has been launched on the West Coast. To learn more, go to www.saveourH2O.org.
Additional information about the California drought and the state's embattled fisheries is available at www.water.ca.gov/drought/, www.water4fish.org and www.saveourstripers.org.